Geoff Eastwood recalls having the gumption to ask his dear mother on his 70th birthday whether he was conceived in a hangar during the three-month Battle of Britain during World War II. Now 74, it remains his only explanation for his amazing passion for aeroplanes.
He has vivid memories of the threatening skies of war above Yorkshire, England, when his dad was 19 and worked as an apprentice bricklayer on the officers’ mess at the RAF Lissett Aerodrome, and watching a Spitfire pilot plunge to his death following a dog fight with the Luftwaffe. Most of all, British fighter pilots flying 50ft above street parties and doing victory rolls on Victory in Europe Day 70 years ago on May 8.
Geoff laughs as he reveals his mum never really dismissed his theory, but for someone who had an obsession for making model planes at 10, later emigrating to Australia and setting up a model planes shop that still exists at Morphett Vale, and after an adventurous flight through time to owning and operating the Goolwa Airport with elaborate plans for a runway housing development, it seems logical.
The aerodrome was created 40 years ago by Don Clark, a Tom the Cheap grocer with extraordinary vision, and later taken on by a businessman of great note, Keith Phillipps. Upon his passing, Geoff purchased the aerodrome after it was passed in at auction in November, 2003, when the aerodrome was home to just four aeroplanes and four old hangars. Today there are more than 80 planes in 43 new hangars, and overall the business hub on the 180-acre complex employs on average 20 people.
More than 10,000 aeroplanes take off the runway each year including tenant businesses Skydive Goolwa, and Warbirds Goolwa where you race through the skies in a Chinese Nanchang CJ-6, which derived from a Russian Yak 18, or an ex-Singapore Airforce old Italian SIAI-Marchetti jet.
There are also two flying schools, the Custom Aircraft Centre where Lyndon Trethewey modifies and builds aeroplanes (mostly single engine the RV Series), Gary Bradley, a licensed mechanic who maintains jets and helicopters, and David Holbourn, another remarkable man who operates a flight simulator as part of pilot training. You may also learn to fly a gyrocopter; the diversity of what goes on in these hangars is as enormous as it is oblivious to those who drive past.
Even more remarkable is the fact motorsport legend, four-times Bathurst winner Allan Moffat, has for many years come here regularly to take people for test drives in the latest BMW model at 240 k/ph down the Goolwa runway on behalf of BMW Australia and Adelaide Motors.
Engineers also use the runway on a near-weekly basis to test motor vehicles that have been modified or defected.
Goolwa Airport is also basically a service station; aeroplanes come here for fuel. If a small private aeroplane flies from Perth to Melbourne it will mostly come here to refuel. A lot of aeroplanes fly to Kangaroo Island, but because there is no aviation fuel available there they land here. This is the only airport within reasonable distance from Adelaide that sells both aviation gasoline and jet fuel.
Most of the Medevac flights are with helicopters, and it is nothing for them not to have enough fuel from the South-East to get to Flinders Hospital so they come in at ungodly early hours to fill up with jet fuel. The Royal Flying Doctor Service stops here occasionally to take local patients to Melbourne.
Obviously, the operation of the Goolwa Airport is a busy one, and Geoff bemoans the fact he is trying to retire again, having failed after three years when he became hopelessly bored aged 60 and took on the airport.
Among his greatest feelings of satisfaction or achievement has been watching his sons Richard and Michael take over much of the day-to-day running of this huge adventure which seems to have no end to its flight path, and another impressive son, Marty, also shares that passion for flying.
It has already been a remarkable journey for Geoff having left school on his 15th birthday because he hated it, and to become a fitter and turner. He had 18th birthday on a ship when he emigrated, spending his few years working on farms in near Griffith, NSW.
Ultimately, when his parents and five siblings also emigrated to Adelaide he joined them, as the the model aeroplane shop flourished.
“I had a few friends through the shop who gave me some flying lessons in a Tiger Moth,” Geoff said. “It led to buying a share in an aeroplane, and I have bought and sold a succession of aeroplanes ever since.” He recently purchased his 39th aeroplane, and has retained four.
“I guess I didn’t know how to stop when I bought my first aeroplane,” Geoff said with a smile. “The next thing I had half a dozen aeroplanes so I started the Aldinga Flying School. I just just bought the land and developed an airport there.”
Another five airstrips – at Wellington, Currency Creek, Hindmarsh Island, and two at Noarlunga – plus the Goolwa development and suddenly aeroplanes became more than a hobby.
Quite rightly, Geoff is extremely proud of the fact there are only six towns in South Australia that have a private airport, which is unlike the rest of Australia, and he has been responsible for four of them – Strathalbyn, Murray Bridge, plus Aldinga and Goolwa.
However, it has certainly not always been without turbulence. Geoff took over the airport when it was badly run down – understandably because of the passing of Keith Phillipps – and the fight to implement the state’s first airpark has been an exhausting experience with the Alexandrina Council over 12 years.
“It took me three years working seven days a week 12 hours a day to get the airport in order; it was in a mess,” Geoff said. “I lost money the first couple of years, and I like to think that changed through just knowing the business and encouraging people.
“Aviation is always the first thing to suffer when there is an economic downturn; always, and I have been involved in it for 50 years. We get the troughs and highs, and as soon as things pick up people go back to their toys.
“Aeroplanes are run by all kinds of people, including some of us who just have to have an aeroplane and have to fly… you would rather buy fuel than food. There are others like builders, doctors and lawyers who own planes and they’re their toys and they get sold with an economic depression.
“For me, aeroplanes and this airport have kept me young, and if I don’t fly I get withdrawal symptoms.”
Flying is also a game where it becomes second nature to those involved; to them it is like driving a car while outsiders consider it as high risk. Of course, there are accidents too, and Geoff has not been immune to the heartbreak.
Geoff had planned to fly his replica Spitfire alongside his good mate Roger Stokes at the Classic Jets Original Airshow at Parafield in March last year, like they had done at so many airshows over the years, but Geoff had to withdraw because his special pass on an Australian Government airstrip had lapsed.
Sadly, Roger, who was the same age and shared the same incredible passion for aeroplanes, that day stalled his Spitfire approaching landing and spun out, dying instantly. “He just made a mistake,” Geoff said.
Maybe Roger shouldn’t have attempted to land on the particular runway in such a light aircraft against a strong crosswind as directed. Regardless, the tragedy of losing his mate has impacted on Geoff, and just like watching that pilot who died in an original Spitfire during that ‘dog fight’ above Yorkshire he will never be able to forget. “You just keep flying,” he says.